Epic Emotions, Heroes & Parallels – Writing From The Heart

I have to be honest… I’ve felt a tremendous need for introspection over the past week or so on things that have nothing to do with my writing—probably because I’m going through a lot of changes.  (Don’t worry, I’ll spare you most of the details.) One way some of my most recent experiences are actually related to my writing, however, is that suddenly I feel more connected to my characters—particularly my heroine.

I remember when I was working on the last couple of scenes in Element 7 during my heavy edits, I felt really emotional about them because, in a way, I was going through some of the same things that my MC (main character) was: heartbreak, confusion, disappointment…

Those are very potent, less-than-desirable experiences, though perhaps going through these things will only serve to make my writing that much more potent.

2012 has been a very dark year for me, actually. (Most will never understand just how dark it truly was for me).  And really, it’s only been in the last couple of months that I’ve felt those dark clouds start to roll away.  The future—my future—doesn’t look quite as…well, bleak as it once did before.  I’d lost a sense of purpose in my life, but lately, I’ve seemed to find some…

The Drifter, by Jack Vettriano.
The Drifter, by Jack Vettriano.

A Call to Action

I’m sure many writers know that there’s a moment in every epic “Hero’s Journey” known as the Call to Action (or Call to Adventure).  (This is relevant because Element 7 is, essentially, a nontraditional hero’s journey.)  Typically, this Call occurs closer to the beginning of a story, but I’m working on a series, and I think my novel actually has two Calls to Action–one near the beginning, and one right at the end.

Why?

Well, there’s got to be something to look forward to in the sequel…right?  (‘Course, gotta leave readers wanting more. ;))

Anyway, the reason I’m even bringing this up is because, right now, I feel I’m facing my own “Call to Adventure” starting my own interior design business…and, to be honest, it’s a pretty darn scary place to be.  If I chicken out, then I won’t have a “story” to live out and tell to others; if I answer the call…

…Well, I’ll kinda have to change.

Fact is I can’t continue to be the person I currently am if I want to get to where I want to go in life.  I have to move even more out of my comfort zone than I’ve been doing lately.

Baby steps are great, for a while, but sometimes you just have to take a huge freakin’ leap if you want to get to The Next Level.

You know what I’m sayin’?

Personal (Ironic) Parallels Between Fiction & Reality

So when I first started formulating the basic ideas behind Element 7, I was 19. I’m 24 now.  (Yes, that means it’s been over 5 years since I started working on this thing!)

Ironically, my main character, Voi, is also 24, so I’m just now catching up to her.  Also, ironically, Voi once made the decision to run her own business at a young age.  She’s a bit ahead of me, in some ways, and lately, I haven’t been looking at her as a hero so much as my hero.

Yes, that’s right—I actually look up to a fictional character.

You see, Voi is a lot more outgoing than I am.  She’s not afraid to do something risky—like drop out of college to pursue her love of flight and become a stunt flyer then later an entrepreneur.  She’s not afraid to make mistakes—or rather, she doesn’t let fear stop her from making them.  Also, she’s a bit of a pioneer.

Most entrepreneurs are, I think.

The point is: I kinda admire that about Voi, and it’s only been recently that I’ve been able to relate to her so directly.

It’s kinda neat.

So, as I sit here churning out my last edits before beta reading, I feel that I’m at a special point in my life where I can stop writing/editing from the notes and outdated plans and whatnot and just simply write from the heart.

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Mass Effect 3

So.

Some of you might know that I’ve been *ehem* neglecting the editing of my novel in order to do a play-through of a game called Mass Effect 3, developed by Bioware (now a division of Electronic Arts).  I’ve been a huge fan of their games since they released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  I don’t play a lot of video games, but when I do many times they’re role-playing titles by Bioware.

I love the idea that gamers can make decisions that can compound and actually affect the storyline (and, in this case, even carry over into other games).  Bioware thus far has done an incredible job of exploring the possibilities of this feature in their games, and Mass Effect 3 is no exception.

I’m not really here to do a game review, though.  I just want to point out some of the highlights of my gaming experience with Bioware’s latest title and reflect on some things I can take away from it as a writer.

Mass Effect 3 Is Not Afraid To Explore Dark, Gritty Themes

There were missions in this game that really made me cringe and wonder thoughts like, “How can anyone do that to another human being?”  It took me to places I’d, quite frankly, rather not go (were they real) and affected me on a surprisingly emotional level.  The game portrays humanity not only at its best but also at its absolute worst, particularly when things go terribly awry with certain technological advancements.  It shows a possible future that is staggeringly bleak and forces you to engage it head-on.

There were many a time during the game where things got so depressing that I truly questioned our hero(ine) Commander Shepard’s ability to unite a galaxy and defeat an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.  The foes are mighty and the stakes are insanely high.

No picnics here.

Mass Effect Asks The Tough Questions

Should humans develop artificial intelligence?  Do A.I. have the right to life?  Just what are organics (humans, alien races) really capable of?  What is the purpose of organic life?  How far should we take genetic engineering–or any scientific process, for that matter?  What is the next step in human evolution?

These are just some of the many questions that this game poses to players (very similar to Battlestar Galactica, actually) and asks them to make tough decisions about.

Mass Effect Makes You Care About What Happens To Characters

No small feat.

When I cry three times during one game (I’m not even kidding)…then I think the writers and creators have done something right.

Throughout all the games in the Mass Effect series players are given the option to cultivate relationships (both platonic and romantic) with other characters, and those can continue to grow over time.  In a story about galactic war, it goes without saying that some of the characters players grow to love (or hate) will end up dying–and I, for one, felt it.  The main ones, even some minor characters, all had their own personal stories and reasons for fighting, stories they’re willing to share if only the player takes the time to get to know them.  This made the playing experience all the more personal.

Also, I’m Still Trying To Suss Out What The (apparently controversial) Ending(s) Means

I get the feeling that things aren’t really as they seem to be on the surface… The “ending” (the one I chose, at least) felt very haunting and eerie to me and leaves a lot to the imagination (see here *spoiler alert*), making me suspect there’s more to come.  Whether in DLC (downloadable content) and/or another game, who knows?  Either way, I plan to stick around and find out.

Anyway, What I Took Away As A Speculative Fiction Writer

  1. Be brave in taking players (readers) to places they haven’t gone–not just philosophically or as far as using one’s imagination goes but also emotionally.  It may start in a foreign world/environment with exotic lifeforms but it really happens though characters who ultimately, alien or not, must feel human.  (See #3.)
  2. Ask the “what ifs” and try to provide some answers.  “How would a galaxy full of various alien races fare against a superior sentient machine race hellbent on annihilating and/or repurposing all advanced organic life?”  The Mass Effect series is the answer to that question.
  3. Develop distinct characters who have their own personal motivations.  If people can relate to their plights, then chances are they’ll actually care and the story will have more meaning.
  4. Endings are tough to pull off well; consider them carefully.

And…yeah, I think that about sums it up!

Anyone Else Playing This Game?

If so, what do you think about it?  Or, if you aren’t, have you ever played a game from which you were able to take away some writing lessons or goals to be inspired by?

Discovering The Soul Of Your Story

Yesterday I was reading a post by Madison Woods, in which she muses about the cheesiness of outlines, hehe, and the suspension of disbelief.  But then it got me thinking about something else…

Discovering the Soul of One’s Story

(Or the core themes, I suppose.)

If I had to briefly summarize what my story is about thematically–which I hate doing because, as Madison kind of talked about, this can sound cheesy…I’d have to say it’s about uncovering truths; understanding the relationship between freedom and manipulation; discovering one’s place in the world; and making tough decisions.

Even though a lot of times I’ll use a whimsical, lighthearted voice in the story, there are actually a lot of darker threads running through it.  I think a major influence for this has been playing the Mass Effect series.  One thing I love about the games is that they force you to make some really tough decisions.  The morality of the choices put before you isn’t so black-and-white, which lends the game a fair amount of grittiness.

I wanted the same thing in my story–along with antagonistic forces that were also morally gray and not just 100% pure evil–but also with an air of fun and adventure similar to that found in Joss Whedon’s Serenity or in the movie The Mummy.  (In dieselpunk TV Tropes terms, I could say it starts off more “diesel deco” and ends up “diesel noir”.)

So that’s more the spirit of the story.

Plot- and character-wise, my protagonist, Voi, is seeking a way out of a seemingly hopeless situation, which gets her involved in some darker underground aspects of her world that she never even knew existed.  During this she learns more about herself and her position on the totem pole of life.  She doesn’t like what she learns and tries not to be involved in it at first, but then she realizes that she already is involved and this frustrates her even more.  Eventually, however, she must decide to take a stance and choose a side.

Wait a minute…we’re not all that different, actually.

It’s kind of funny, now that I think about it, because I’m actually in a similar position myself.  For the longest time I’ve been brought up to believe in certain religious truths, but I didn’t entirely understand those truths and what they demanded of me.  Then, when a deeper understanding did come to me…well, the world suddenly seemed a less cheery place to be in.  The concept of “freedom” became blurry, almost an illusion.

So I’ve tried distancing myself from what I’ve been taught to accept, and like my protagonist I realized that I’m already part of it all and there’s really no escaping it.  (Can you tell I’m purposefully being vague here?  I like to do that every now and then.)

So, then, I’m left with a decision: do I continue denying it?  Rebel against it?  Embrace it?

Voi faces the same dilemma in her world.  At certain points she feels manipulated, trapped, in the dark, hopeless, and completely out of her depth.  I think, once I can share the story, others will be able to feel an emotional resonance in it because I share many of the same sentiments as my protagonist.  I’m just writing about them in a different, much more exotic context.  (My story is actually not about religion at all, oddly enough.  Sure, it has religions in it, as many fantasy novels with extensive worldbuilding will, but they are never the focus.)

Voi is older than me in her story, though only by a year now.  (I guess I’m slowly catching up to her, heh.)  It’s not something I’ve done intentionally, but I think her life, though radically different from mine, is actually an allegory to mine, in some ways.  I just never realized that until…well, now.

So maybe I’ve been using this writing experience to help with sorting some things out.  I’m not entirely sure.

<sarcasm> Great, thanks for sharing your life story. </sarcasm>

Sorry, this is kind of me just thinking out loud, so I hope this hasn’t been too useless to you, dear readers.  Are there better places to ponder these things?  Probably, but I needed something to blog about today. 😛

I am prone to analyzing things like this, when certain insights come to me, though I try not to make too much of it.  Voi’s life isn’t mine and vice versa.  Still, maybe I can learn something from this.

When did you discover the heart and soul of your story/stories?

Is this something you typically know coming into a project, or something that seems to reveal itself to you later?  Is it different with every story?  Also, have you ever noticed parallels between what happens in your stories and what happens in your own life?

Setting Reflects Character Reflects Setting (Part II)

Late post today!

So last week I left off with the question: how can the words you choose to describe your characters and their surroundings work to your advantage so that the setting becomes not just a prop but a tool for complementing, amplifying or providing contrast to your characters?

Then I started writing an answer and it got really long (happens sometimes)…and I’m like, “Screw this.  Let’s keep things short.”

-er.

So here’s the short answer:

Draw From Elements of Setting to Demonstrate Aspects of Character

That’s basically what it comes down to.

Now for the explanation.

Imagine there’s this character…

…a young woman.  She’s having a moment of calm but it could be ruined at any moment because she’s avoiding some task that needs to be done but refuses to do it because it only confirms some truth she doesn’t want to acknowledge.  The reason she’s focusing on being calm is not only to avoid this thing but also because she believes she’s in a hopeless situation that’s only getting worse, and she’s doing her best to ignore this and wants to believe there is some hope left for her.  Even if she’s not sure how this is possible yet.

So we have a set up.  Vague as it might be.  (Feel free to fill in the particulars with your imagination.)

We also already have some strong emotions and states of mind we can play off of: calmness, peace, fear, guilt, denial, hopelessness, maybe even some paranoia.  In order to contribute to the overall mood of this situation, then, it would make sense (to me, anyway) to choose words and focus on things that inherently evoke or hint at these emotions, even when it comes down to painting the picture of the setting.

Maybe our protagonist finds gentle breezes to be soothing.  Maybe she equates being still with being at peace, so she isn’t really doing anything at the moment except for sitting in her kitchen, at a table perhaps, and listening to the curtains rustle in the wind at an open window.

Introducing the emotional elements through the setting can help the reader feel the quality of calmness and serenity that the protagonist longs to experience herself.

So let’s say now she closes her eyes, enjoying the moment…

But things are too laid-back now.  We need some contrast here.

To bring in the guilt, our protagonist needs to be reminded of what she’s been putting off, so maybe she becomes aware of a clock ticking off in the distance now.  The notion of time is unwantedly drilled into her mind, reminding her of that-thing-left-to-do and making her paranoid.  Yet she denies this by picking up the newspaper, perhaps, focusing on it instead.  Though, even this holds reminders of hopelessness: stories of the unfortunate and tragic accidents.  Lurid, sensational news.

She tosses the paper aside, frustrated.

Again, she listens to the clock and is paralyzed by its incessant, unchanging rhythm.

Eventually she’s able to fix her gaze onto some tulips sitting in a vase upon the table, just beginning to bloom.  They remind her of pleasant, happy things.  A symbol of new life and new beginnings…something she may never have.

Then someone pounds on the front door, giving her a start.  Her body tenses because suddenly she realizes it’s too late to do the thing she’s been avoiding, and now she could definitely be in trouble for it.

~

Obviously the protagonist has got to face the thing she’s avoiding sometime.  Though, by providing atmospheric context that supports the character’s situation, you can make connections between character and setting in a way that builds tension and enhances the moment, leading up to the point where a dramatic shift takes place.

Not always ideal for handling every situation in a story, but it’s one way of doing things.  I’m sure there are plenty of other methods.

What are some of the ways you connect characters with settings in your stories?

Story & Music

I played the viola in my schools’ orchestras up until I auditioned and played in my first semester of college, when I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t cut out for “pro” performance (that is a whole other ball game, folks).  Still, this has influenced me greatly, along with playing piano for fun.  I’m always listening for musical qualities and patterns in things, even in something as simple as a birds chirping or something as abstract as how an object rings when it is struck, or the notes that can be played by blowing across a bottle’s opening.  (I could tell you what note it approximately hums at; my friend used to say it’s perfect pitch, but I don’t like the word “perfect,” heh.)

In any case, I can’t tell you how much I am inspired by music.  I believe it affects my writing.

Music in Movies

When I watch a movie I often judge its quality in part by its soundtrack because that, too, comes with the package.  Sometimes I think the music causes a movie to reach a level of transcendence that it may not have reached were it left to the movie script, actors, effects, or the other elements of a film.  The music is so special that it causes the viewer overlook some of the movie’s flaws, just for the pleasure of getting caught up in the atmosphere that is established by the soundtrack.

I have two examples of where I think this has happened.  The first is in M. Night Shayamalan’s The Village:

Do you recall the score?  It was utterly gorgeous.  And the funny thing was that in spite of its undeniable beauty, it felt incredibly understated in the movie!  Which is fine because I don’t think a soundtrack should ever overpower what is happening in the film; it should complement and augment it, but if it’s the only thing going for a movie…well, you get the idea.

For me, the soundtrack for The Village is like a girl, or a woman, who privately is aware of her beauty but never calls attention to it.  There’s such a modesty about it, despite its grandeurIt’s also very haunting, which contributed to the mystery/thriller element of the movie.

I think the violin in this soundtrack represents the theme of the preciousness of innocence, which is personified by Ivy, played by the lovely Bryce Dallas Howard.  It also represents hope.

Though it is much simpler, I think the soundtrack for The Adjustment Bureau, composed by Thomas Newman, did a similar thing for that movie:

There’s just something very surreal and magical about this particular track around 0:39, but it fits the scene from the movie perfectly.  At this particular spot Matt Damon’s character, David, is watching a woman named Elise, played by Emily Blunt, dance in a performance with her studio.  (The movements in their dance could also be described as surreal.  Very atmospheric.  It was an unusual stage set-up they performed on, as well.  At least for me.)  It’s a very simple scene, but for some reason it struck me as very special.

You have to understand the nature of their relationship for the beauty of this scene to make sense.  At first meet (in the men’s restroom, of all places), it is very clear there is something unique happening between Elise and David.  Elise herself has something very uncanny and fey-like about her.  When she and David are together, it is magic.

I think the one track above captures these qualities beautifully.  There’s another that picks up on the exotic, free-spirited nature of Elise, as well, if you’re interested:

 

I also think the soundtrack for Lust, Caution is another good example of how music can raise a movie to loftier heights and has some of the same themes of the other two movies I listed, but I won’t bombard you with more of the same stuff.  (I’ve got a whole list in my head!)

That’s great, Tiyana, but what does this have to do with writing?

Hold your horses, people!

Here’s my point: You can learn from music because like writing and film, music can be used to tell a story.  The mediums are quite different, though they can all come together splendidly.  The novel differs in that it is limited to the written word, of course, and perhaps also the cover design of the book if it is published.  Still, just as music can color a movie and add style, atmosphere and drama, so can the words you choose as you write your story.  Every word you use can help contribute a thematic punch to your work, if you let it.

From certain musical elements in The Village I derived the qualities of beauty, modesty, grandeur, innocence, hope and haunting(-ness, heh).  Some belong to the themes in this movie and others serve as motifs.  From The Adjustment Bureau I was left with the qualities of surreal, magical, special, uncanny, fey-like, exotic and free-spirited–all of which united to help create the overall atmosphere and flavor of this film.

Communicating theme, motif and style through music is more abstract a process than it is with writing, I think, but the same idea applies: Take cues from the context of your story–both on a micro (within scenes, sections and sentences) and marco level, and let the ideas and themes of your heart spill and bleed onto your manuscript.  Thread them through every fiber of your story.  Each idea and element in your work can be connected and tied in with the others, coming together in striking artistic resonance until you are no longer writing simply fiction but fiction with a palpable song, one that has a story to tell.  Over time, I think it gets easier to tell when a “wrong note” or chord is played, or when prose becomes flat and one-note.  It also gets easier to fix these things and add variation and complexity.

Sometimes I feel like the story is, at first, trapped within the mind of the author, in the vastness of the aether, and it is the writer’s duty to give them shape and form and set them free.  Words are the writer’s instruments, and they are begging to be played!

What kind of song does your novel/story sing?

If your current work in progress were a song, how would you describe it?  Which words best evoke the pictures and themes you’d like for others to envision as they read it?  What qualities to do wish for them to experience?  You can name them in a list, if you want, such as the following:

Wonder.
Fear.
Magic.
Uncertainty.

Mystery.
Hope.
Justice.
Injustice.

War.
Peace.
Possibility.
Understanding.
Ignorance.

Maybe yours is shorter; maybe it’s longer.  Regular sentences work just fine, too!